CHINA DREAM Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Is it possible to live the China dream? Alexander Wallace finds out...

In recent years in the Anglosphere, we have seen a plethora of translated Chinese science fiction reach us. Much of this has been translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen, premier among them the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Cixin Liu. We have seen novels translated by Chen Qiufan and Hao Jingfang, and two anthologies of translated short fiction, translated by Ken Liu, which have also been worth the read.

But the wave of translation and exposure in the Anglosphere to the vibrant world of Chinese science fiction has constantly run into an uneasy contact with our understanding of Chinese human rights abuses in Uyghurstan specifically and in the country as a whole more generally. Cixin Liu has gone on record saying he supports the People’s Republic’s policies in Uyghurstan (I suspect he had no choice to, given how the Chinese government treats its dissidents; in any case I think the context is so different between a liberal democracy and an autocracy like the People’s Republic that we mustn’t be so quick to ‘cancel’ him). There have been calls to cancel a filmed adaptation of The Three-Body Problem, and to oppose the bid for a future WorldCon in Chengdu (full disclosure: I’m of the opinion that if one opposes Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Israel due to human rights issues, all of whose sins are legion, one must absolutely oppose a convention in the People’s Republic).

We merely need to look at Ma Jian, his oeuvre, and his career to see what the People’s Republic does to its dissidents. His fiction was banned in the country in 1986 after the publication of a novella where he criticized harshly aspects of Tibetan culture after travelling through the region; it was banned for defaming the image of Tibet (which is rich coming from the People’s Republic, but I digress). He moved to Germany for a teaching position, and has since made his living in London. In his most recent novel, China Dream, he imagines a vision of a Chinese future that is not tainted by the ever-looming specter of the sword of Damocles that hangs over every writer in the People’s Republic.

The title of the novel references the conception of a Chinese future as promoted by Xi Jinping; it is a term also translated as ‘Chinese Dream,’ no doubt in part to draw an implicit comparison to the ‘American Dream.’ Unlike its American counterpart, the Chinese dream is something that is relatively new and is heavily associated with the current Chinese leader and his particular view of what China should be (in that regards it’s more akin to ‘Make America Great Again’).

The plot concerns a local party apparatchik named Ma Daode, a man haunted by his memories of China’s past. He is constantly distracted by vivid daydreams that run counter to his stated position as a representative of the Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s China Dream. While doing this, he supports a project developing a microchip that would replace the dress of all Chinese with the China Dream. A large portion of the plot is Ma Daode trying to deal with the dreams in his head, and this is furthered along by Ma’s involvement with a local spiritualist who tries to cure his ills.

For a novel I discovered within the book recommendations section in an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, the supernatural elements only form so much of the plot; indeed, they’re more signifiers of competing visions of what China should be. The spiritualist represents an older, pre-Communist China, and the microchip represents the very modern, industrial, communist yet very capitalist China as promoted by the Party. Much of the plot concerns the decision by the Party to relocate a village and its population and build an industrial park on the site; the Party says that it is good for the economy and good for China, while the locals are understandably furious about a decision made without their consent. The displacement and the trauma brought about by economic development at first does not seem like the most science fictional topic, but I’m reminded of something Kim Stanley Robinson said during an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:

“Then my discovery of the New Wave in about 1971 (Delany, Zelazny, Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, Le Guin, Disch, Lem, Russ, the Strugatskis, Brunner, Lafferty — the New Wave not as a style but as a period) transformed me. It turned me into a science fiction person. I think this was because during my childhood I had seen Orange County’s agricultural landscape torn out and replaced by freeways and buildings. Science fiction was the first literature I had read that spoke to that feeling of “future shock” or “landscape PTSD.” It was a powerful response, and I think that science fiction is my realist fiction about life in southern California. The actual experience of that time and place was a science fictional experience, and thus best captured by science fiction.”

The people of this village being bulldozed by the Party can undoubtedly be said to be experiencing a form of ‘future shock’ or ‘landscape PTSD,’ as they fight against the predations of the industrial state. Here, Ma ruthlessly interrogates the Communist Party’s vision of the future of China in a manner that strongly reminded me of how Cory Doctorow ruthlessly interrogated America in his collection Radicalized. Perhaps China Dream isn’t what we science fiction readers think of when we hear the term ‘science fiction novel,’ but it is at the very least adjacent to it, and it is worth reading in any case.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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